Did you know that your heart beats more than 100,000 times a day and pumps over 2,000 gallons of blood per day? It’s one of the hardest working muscles in your body.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease (any condition related to the heart and blood vessels) is the number one cause of death for men and women in the United States, killing one person every 33 seconds. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize your heart health.
Does that mean everyone should see a cardiologist annually? Not exactly.
Vignesh Raghunath, MD, a cardiologist with Atlantic Health System, explains when you should see a cardiologist. He outlines which symptoms warrant a visit to a specialist, the risk factors you should be aware of, and how to go about finding a specialist you can trust and feel good about.
What is a Cardiologist?
A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases and conditions of the heart and the blood vessels attached to it. They also work with patients to prevent heart disease.
“If the heart is like a house, cardiologists are the general contractors,” says Dr. Raghunath. “We treat conditions related to the structure or framework (such as muscle and valve repairs or bypasses), plumbing (like clogged arteries and blood vessels) and electricity (irregular rhythm or heartbeat).”
Common conditions that cardiologists treat include:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure
- Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol)
- Coronary artery disease (CAD)
- Peripheral artery disease, or PAD (narrow, clogged arteries)
- Atrial fibrillation (Afib)
- Heart failure
- Heart attacks and strokes
Who Should See a Cardiologist?
Not everyone needs to see a cardiologist. However, if you fall into any of these three categories, Dr. Raghunath believes it’s a good idea to be evaluated:
- You have (any) symptoms of heart disease.
- You’re at a higher risk because of a family history of early heart disease or your own experience with a heart attack or stroke.
- You’re overweight, a smoker or an older person looking to get back into exercising after being sedentary for a long time.
Symptoms of Heart Disease
Dr. Raghunath is quick to point out that not everyone experiences symptoms the same way, or at all. However, chest pain is a classic sign of heart trouble and the most reported symptom among most patients.
Other symptoms may include:
- Heart palpitations or a racing heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the legs
- A feeling of lightheadedness or faintness
“If you have even one of these symptoms, it could indicate a problem,” says Dr. Raghunath. “Even if it’s minor, it’s worth a visit to your doctor to be evaluated.”
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Some health and lifestyle factors may increase your risk of developing heart disease. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Other health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and chronic kidney disease
- Early family history of heart disease
- Past heart attack or stroke (in other words, personal history with heart disease)
As Dr. Raghunath explains, “Some heart diseases have a genetic component, so if someone in your family had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 55, you should be screened. Also, there’s a strong correlation between both diabetes and obesity and cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease can lead to coronary and peripheral artery diseases.”
Tips for Finding a Cardiologist
If you do need to see a cardiologist, start by asking your primary care doctor for a referral — even if your insurance doesn’t require it. You can also ask your family and friends for referrals.
“Every cardiologist has the credentials and board certification to practice, but you may not like their bedside manner,” says Dr. Raghunath. “It’s okay to shop around and find someone with a personality that you click with. Trust your instincts.”
You may not be able to change your genes, but you can take control of your health. Talk to your parents to understand your family history, then get screened if needed. See your primary care doctor annually for a physical exam. And if you have symptoms, have them evaluated right away.
“Early detection is key,” says Dr. Raghunath. “It’s better to err on the side of caution and be evaluated before it becomes a major health crisis.”
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